A Tale of Two Synods Chapter 3 Part 2

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The Brux case

Friederich Bente’s 1905 essay, “Warum koennen wir keine gemeinsame Gottesdienste mit Ohioern und Iowaern veranstalten und abhalten?” (“Why Can We Not Establish and Maintain Common Prayer Services with the Ohioans and Iowans?”) offered the most comprehensive Missouri condemnation of prayer fellowship among those not united in doctrine. Bente granted that “true children of God” existed in the Ohio and Iowa synods. Missouri would never deny “all communion of faith and prayer” to those “who err from weakness or lack of insight” but would patiently support “obviously weak” brothers. But Iowans and Ohioans refused to be considered “weakly brethren.” As long as they persisted in their false ways, Missouri’s arms were tied, and “we cannot embrace them as brothers.” There can “never be any talk of joint prayer services between us and them.” Bente repeatedly called them adversaries, opponents, enemies, dangerous heretics, and false prophets.

footnote: Theodore Graebner observed in “The Cloak of the Cleric,” a paper presented for private discussion within the Concordia Seminary faculty but printed after his death, that “since 1905 (Bente’s) synodical position was that prayer fellowship = church fellowship.” Graebner’s remark suggests that Bente’s article served as an influential, oft-cited Missouri position statement opposing prayer fellowship with non-Synodical Conference Lutherans. Bente’s paper, however, was not the only such statement. Franz Pieper said in a 1924 essay, “Unionism,” that since God’s Word forbids fellowship with false teachers, “to pray with them or to partake of the Lord’s Supper with them would mean to consent to, and to become ‘partakers of their evil works.’ ”

Graebner himself in 1920 discussed how difficult it was to explain to Reformed church members that “joint prayers presume Christian fellowship.” He lamented that “after an hour’s patient effort” he still had not brought his listener one step closer to his understanding. His listener continued to insist, “We are in Christian fellowship with all who exalt Jesus Christ, whether Protestant or Catholic.” To the suggestion that church conferences composed of groups not in doctrinal agreement could still be opened with “a tactful prayer,” Graebner replied, “It ought to be clear to anyone who gives sincere thought to the matter that any prayer in which we are asked to join those who speak not from the same faith as we, or in which we are asked to withhold an expression of conviction, or by the participation in and utterance of which we are to treat as immaterial those articles of faith in which we differ, cannot be pleasing to God. For if joint prayer signifies anything, it signifies the spiritual unity of those who pray.” end footnote

The first test of Missouri’s prayer fellowship practice came in the Brux case. Following his graduation from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, in 1917, Adolph Brux taught for two years at Concordia College, Milwaukee. Pursuing an interest in languages, Brux enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and after completing his Ph.D. in Arabic and Hebrew studies, he was called as a missionary to Madras, India, in 1923. On his journey to India, stopping at Beirut and Bombay, Brux and his wife were house guests of Presbyterian missionaries, where they accepted their hosts’ invitation to join them in table devotions consisting of Scripture readings and prayer. When his fellow Missouri missionaries questioned him, Brux maintained he had not been guilty of unionism in his actions.

footnote: Brux recalled that “he was watched very carefully by the other Missouri Synod missionaries and definitely felt as if he ‘lived in a fish bowl.’” end footnote

In a paper delivered to the North Arcot District missionary conference in 1924, Brux reconsidered the primary proof passages Missouri employed in support of its opposition to prayer fellowship with heterodox Christians. He concluded that Missouri’s practice “goes beyond what a sound interpretation of these Bible passages warrants,” even labeling the synod’s position “unscriptural.”

When he returned to the United States in 1931, Missouri’s Board for Foreign Missions evaluated his paper. Assuming Brux was wrong because his interpretation disagreed with accepted synodical position, the Board appointed a review committee. Prof. Martin Sommer of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, one committee member, reportedly stated: “I am not open to instruction in this matter. I ceased to be open to instruction from the day I took office in the ministry.” The Brux study was then presented before the entire Concordia faculty. Ludwig Fuerbringer subsequently confessed he had not read the paper at all. Theodore Graebner, after reading four or five pages, laid the paper aside as “unworthy of further study.”

Continued discussions between Brux and the review committee centered on his interpretation of Romans 16:17 and 18.

footnote: Verse 18: “For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple” (KJV). end footnote

Brux maintained that disagreement over the passage inevitably concerned larger issues of biblical interpretation and doctrinal formulations:

The point of controversy then is still the proper exegesis and application of the pertinent Bible passages. It must necessarily be so, even when the question is one of doctrine. Exegesis and application of Bible passages are not dependent on doctrine, but doctrine is always dependent on the exegesis and application of a passage according to sound hermeneutical principles. How can there be doubt concerning “the full scope and application of some of these passages,” and at the same time certainty in regard to the full scope and application of the doctrine derived from those passages?

In a final expanded and revised form of his paper, published in 1935, Brux concluded there was “not one Bible passage to uphold the Synod’s negative position,” and so Missouri’s claim that Scripture forbids prayer fellowship with other Christians “falls to the ground.” Prayer fellowship with other Christians becomes impossible “only when circumstances carry into the act such implications as will necessarily involve a violation of the confessional position and conscience and thereby give offense.”

Despite failed appeals before Missouri’s 1935 and 1938 conventions, the Brux case exerted a lasting influence on the synod’s teaching and practice of church fellowship. Richard Caemmerer called Brux “the man who for the first time charted a new course [and] faced up to his own conscience in the matter of prayer-fellowship.” Otto Geiseman credited Brux as “the man to whom we owe this thing getting started.” By 1960, Missouri’s shifting fellowship doctrine, as presented in “The Theology of Fellowship,” was taken by Brux as complete vindication of his position.

footnote: Brux concluded in Christian Prayer-Fellowship, “Our error lies in applying, or attempting to apply the injunctions to ‘avoid’ . . . to Christians and fellow members of the body of Christ, because these injunctions manifestly have reference only to reprobates and antichristian individuals, to either persons who never were Christians, or having been Christians, have apostasized. They do not fit the case of erring Christians, and hence they do not provide a Scriptural basis for our Synodical position on prayer-fellowship with Christians of other denominations.” Missouri’s “The Theology of Fellowship,” said, “The passages which command separation were written for situations which cannot simply be identified with those which we face today” and “must not be applied mechanically to fellow Christians in a confessional-organizational fellowship other than one’s own.” end footnote

Missouri resolved at its 1965 convention that “The Theology of Fellowship,” with slight revisions, be adopted as its official statement of policy and practice. That occurred at the next convention in 1967.

Theodore Graebner’s dismissal of the Brux paper as “unworthy of further study” is highly ironic in view of the transformation regarding church fellowship he himself underwent. Graebner recalled that the scriptural evidence for Missouri’s definition of unionism broke down when Concordia’s faculty “was called upon to pass judgment on the attitude of Missionary Brux on the text usually quoted as prohibiting such prayers [Romans 16:17 and 18].” The faculty could not formulate an effective dissenting opinion, and the floor committee at Missouri’s 1935 convention “had to acknowledge the validity of the Brux position”—but did not report that to convention delegates. “The relevancy of the texts [Romans 16:17 and 18 and others] was not pronounced upon” in the floor committee’s resolution, Graebner remarked, and so “the problem is still with us.”

In 1917, 1923, and 1931, Graebner stated his opposition to prayer fellowship with heterodox Christians, citing Romans 16:17,18. As late as 1935, in The Problem of Lutheran Unity and Other Essays, Graebner charged the United Lutheran Church of America and the Norwegian Synod with permitting “errorists to speak in their Church and for their Church,” calling it a “sin against the Word of God, which forbids alliance with error, Rom. 16,17.”

By 1943, however, Graebner disavowed his previously stated understanding of the Romans passage. In Toward Lutheran Union, he warned against “a mechanical and automatic application” of the Romans injunction to “avoid them.” While this and other passages “of like tenor” help to establish fellowship principles, Graebner opposed “the unthinking, indiscriminate application” of such warnings to every Christian just because he or she does not belong to the orthodox church. Those texts “are aimed at false teachers,” those “who subvert the Gospel of Christ.”

There were not in St. Paul’s day large bodies of Christians sharing the same belief to a very large extent, nor bodies of Lutherans with members the rank and file of whom believe practically the selfsame doctrines, although their leaders—it is a fact that the existing doctrinal differences are argued mainly by the leaders, the pastors— though their leaders differ on certain teachings. . . .

I do not see that such passages help us determine what our conduct must be in certain contacts with people belonging to heterodox communities— people who are not teachers at all, who are not at all trying to seduce us, and whose views we do not for a moment propose to share. The injunction to avoid them might still be urged as a warning not to be entangled in the error which their Church teaches and confesses. But with regard to the question: “What is unionism in the private life of a Christian?” they seem to me to be irrelevant.

footnote: The very first example Graebner then presented, involved a case in which “I am a guest in someone’s house—someone not in communion with me— or he is a guest in my house.” The circumstances Graebner then described were remarkably similar to those that occasioned the Brux case. It may be argued that sharing a devotion with a Presbyterian missionary would seem to go beyond Graebner’s above reference to those “who are not teachers at all.” Yet Graebner went further still in discussing circumstances parallel to those Brux encountered: “In India [!] I have experienced such situations in the houses of non-Lutheran missionaries. Our ‘Missourian’ position was very well known to them all; it never for a moment entered into the head of my host that I was running counter to my principles and practicing church fellowship with his Church or that he was fellowshiping with me, in the technical sense of the term, because I sat at his table quietly and courteously while he, as the pater familias, conducted his customary devotion” end footnote

The roots of Graebner’s change seem to lie in earlier experience. Already in 1925 Graebner noted Missouri’s “main difficulty” in “treating all differences of opinion as destructive to fellowship.” He recalled hearing a pastor in 1926 charge that the Missouri Synod had forfeited its doctrinal unity because “we have two contradictory attitudes on the question of church fairs and bazaars!” A restudy of the scriptural principles was necessary, Graebner urged, because some in Missouri seemed to possess “a rigidity which will not be satisfied with anything less than a complete cleavage” from all other Christians, all but refusing to recognize the universal priesthood of believers and the Una Sancta.

Union overtures

Missouri’s Paul Kretzmann wrote in January 1933 that there were still “a few other questions” that would need to be resolved between Missouri and the American Lutheran Church before fellowship could be declared, such as “the celebration of Sunday, which cannot be said to be divinely commanded”; questions concerning marriage, divorce, and “particularly the validity of rightful betrothal”; the significance of John the Baptizer’s baptism; and “a number of other points, chiefly in the field of Christian ethics.” This prompted the American Lutheran Church’s president C. C. Hein to respond that if unity in the faith had to be based on agreement in such matters, “there is no hope whatsoever for the Lutherans of this country to get together.”

Yet the American Lutheran Church and United Lutheran Church of America both called for closer relations among American Lutherans. Both appointed committees at their 1934 conventions to confer with other Lutheran bodies, and both addressed communications to the Missouri Synod for formal consideration at Missouri’s 1935 convention.

Though initial response was cool,

footnote Martin Sommer charged that those who declared outward union without achieving inward unity “open Christ’s sheepfold to the wolves.” Theodore Graebner insisted that Missouri was not interested in a church union “formed as of furniture factories or tobacco plantations, where nothing counts but the reducing of overhead and increasing of dividends.” end footnote

Missouri resolved in 1935 “that we declare our willingness to confer with other Lutheran bodies” and authorized the appointment of a committee for that purpose, which came to be called the Committee on Lutheran Church Union. It was understood that “if a true union in faith and doctrine cannot be obtained, the divisions within the Lutheran Church must naturally continue.” Before Missouri’s 1938 convention, the Committee on Lutheran Church Union met with representatives of the United Lutheran Church of America and the American Lutheran Church six times. Concerning the United Lutheran Church of America, the committee declared it “impossible for the two parties to come to agreement” on the doctrine of inspiration and discontinued its meetings with that body.

footnote: The United Lutheran Church of America commissioners were unable to accept the Brief Statement’s insistence on scriptural infallibility “also in those parts which treat of historical, geographical, and other secular matters, John 10:35.” The attempt of United Lutheran Church of America men to use the word inspiration while denying verbal inspiration and inerrancy as “man-made theories” was dismissed by Theodore Engelder as “a clumsy form of sophistry.” end footnote

Results of meetings with the American Lutheran Church were more favorable. American Lutheran Church representatives “accepted the doctrinal contents” of the Brief Statement, but “in order to supplement and emphasize their position” offered another document of its own, the Declaration of the Representatives of the American Lutheran Church, also referred to as the Sandusky Resolutions. The floor committee at Missouri’s 1938 convention acknowledged that unresolved questions remained, yet it recommended that the Brief Statement, together with the American Lutheran Church’s Declaration, “be regarded as the doctrinal basis for future church-fellowship between the Missouri Synod and the American Lutheran Church.” This resolution, which came to be called the St. Louis Union Articles of 1938 or simply the Union Resolutions, was adopted.

footnote: Two years later, Lutheran Witness editors remarked that extensive discussions of the doctrines separating Missouri from the American Lutheran Church were unnecessary. The 1938 agreement was not the result of only three years’ negotiations since 1935, but it “had been coming gradually for a long period of time.” On some points, Graebner maintained, there had been agreement already in 1868, on others 25, 40, or 50 years earlier. end footnote

Concerning some “non-fundamental points” regarding Last Things, the Declaration asserted that “we are dealing here with the correct understanding of prophecy and fulfillment” and that “this understanding is not always easy.” The American Lutheran Church accepted “the historical judgment” that “the Pope is the very Antichrist,” but whether “in the future that is still before us” there might be “a special unfolding and personal concentration of the antichristian power already present now,” a “still more comprehensive fulfillment of Second Thessalonians 2,” the Declaration said, “we leave to the Lord and Ruler of Church and world history.”

Regarding the conversion of Israel, the Declaration cited the Milwaukee Kolloquium of 1867 and said, “We declare with Dr. Walther that to assume such a conversion ‘must not be regarded as a cause for division.’” On the teaching of a physical resurrection of the martyrs prior to Judgment Day, the Declara- tion declared, “We are not ready to deny church-fellowship to any who would hold this view.” Regarding the thousand years of Revelation chapter 20 the Declaration again cited Walther that “it is not possible to say with absolute certainty either that the thousand years have already been fulfilled or that they lie in the future.”

Concerning whether it was “permissible to speak of a visible side of the Church,” the Declaration insisted that “to do so is not a false doctrine if by this visible side nothing else is meant than the use of the means of grace.” Missouri’s Brief Statement said that “since it is by faith in the Gospel alone that men become members of the Christian church, and since this faith cannot be seen by men,” the church is invisible “and will remain invisible till Judgment Day.” The Brief Statement acknowledged that “some Lutherans speak of two sides of the Church, taking the means of grace to be its ‘visible side,’” but insisted that “the means of grace are not necessarily related to the Church” because “the Church in the proper sense of the word consists only of believers.”

Missouri’s committee said its synodical fathers “had declared that a deviation in this doctrine [the Antichrist] need not be divisive of church-fellowship.”

footnote A footnote added to the committee report by the synod in convention said that references to the synodical fathers “must not be understood in any way as if we were basing any doctrine on what the synodical fathers teach. We simply mention the fact that they considered some non-fundamental doctrines as not necessarily divisive of church-fellowship.” end footnote

Missouri conceded that the phrase “the visible side of the church,” left unexplained, “might give occasion for the fostering of false doctrine, such as the Romanizing teaching which represents the Church as an external or religious institution.” But because synodical fathers allowed that Word and Sacrament could “in a certain sense be considered as belonging to the essence of the Church,” these differences were also viewed as “not divisive to church-fellowship.”

End Chapter 3 part 2